Why Did the Esalen Institute Figure So Prominently in Both Mad Men and True Detective?

The series finale of Mad Men. Photo: Courtesy of AMC

Endings and beginnings are very similar, if even separable. Per one of the more quoted tautologies of recent memory: “Time is a flat circle.” In television terms, this means that nothing will be scrutinized for demiurgic intent more than premieres and finales. On the surface, one could hardly ask for two shows with less in common in both subject and style: One is an elliptical, 92-episode meditation on the possibility of personal transformation within the American identity, the other an esoteric procedural that, beneath its generous budget and often-grade-A execution, is really pornography with a thesaurus. (Not a slight: The same can be said for some terrific movies.) And yet, both the series finale of Mad Men and the season premiere of True Detective (which is the opening chapter of a new discrete narrative) prominently feature a coastal California holistic retreat center that is a thinly veiled stand-in for the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. In fact, so egregious is the similarity that one of the establishing shots of the Panticapaeum Institute in True Detective includes a hillside meditation that would almost certainly have to be a call-and-response to the Mad Men finale if the premiere of the former series had not been shot prior to the finale of the latter.

So, what is it about Esalen that could be so essential to stories so divergent that it would figure so prominently in both? I would submit that both series have had in their DNA what writer Erik Davis refers to as “California consciousness,” which he defines as the “imaginative, experimental, and often hedonistic quest for human transformation by any means necessary.” Further, I would say this spiritual ethos is in fact inseparable from the origins of prestige television: Mystical overtones only become more prominent over the course of The Sopranos, which was for Nic Pizzolatto an influence and for Matthew Weiner a proving ground. But the first real example of television being used as a medium for radical experimentation in form and aesthetics came ten years before that in Twin Peaks, the vision of David Lynch, one of the more famed exponents of California consciousness (and who, appropriately, is gearing up for a return).

In my view, if Esalen is the embodiment of California consciousness, then the connection can be attributed to the simple fact that both Weiner and Pizzolatto share one of the most paradoxical jobs imaginable: showrunner. As quoted in Brett Martin’s book on the subject, Difficult Men: “This isn’t like publishing some lunatic’s novel or letting him direct a movie. This is handing a lunatic a division of General Motors.” Fair enough. Being a “creative writer” in and of itself is deeply suspicious, requiring the unlikely union of left-brain linear reasoning and right-brain intuition and imagination, not to mention an unseemly desire for solitude. Add to that the political intelligence to navigate the Byzantine and inscrutable vagaries of the entertainment industry (I once spoke with a ranking member of the Intelligence Community who expressed polite bafflement trying to understand Hollywood). And add to that the managerial skills to simultaneously oversee hundreds of people within multiple different departments spanning prep, production, and post-, while shooting several times the material of a feature film at several times the pace. It stands to reason that such a strange and seemingly self-contradictory beast would search for guidance from less conventional avenues.

Meanwhile, all this is taking place in an environment, per Davis, that historically has been “the stage for a strange and steady parade of utopian sect, bohemian mystics, cult leaders, psychospiritual healers, holy poets, sex magicians, fringe Christians, and psychedelic warriors.” Weird shit is part of the status quo, and New Age concepts that would make you a complete fruitcake in East Coast intellectual circles are dinner-party conversation in Los Angeles no different from recommendations for a good dog walker. Still, while actors can speak without self-consciousness about yurts and crystals and so forth, writers tend to be just as ambivalent about their own mystical inclinations as they are everything else. Again, fair enough: Taken to extremes, this is the state for which we can thank the People’s Temple, Scientology, and the Manson family. Or, as Don Draper says to Stephanie when she leaves an encounter group in tears, “You don’t know what happens to people when they believe in things.” That being said, Western materialism has an irrational disdain for the irrational, and despite the flaws of given movements or gurus, it’s impossible to dismiss an attempted synthesis of the world’s great wisdom traditions given the number of lives it has changed for the better, not to mention the ongoing ravages of the industrial age on the biosphere (no meditation class has ever bulldozed a rainforest).

Further, while the group’s treatment of Stephanie might seem cruel, it does succeed in its objective of dismantling her “personality armor.” Don himself undergoes a similar dismantling, permitting a genuine human connection with famed Refrigerator Man and opening himself up for what psychologist and Esalen lecturer Abraham Maslow called a peak experience, which he defined as the “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality” — and, as it were, selling Coca-Cola.

Form following function, True Detective’s Panticapeum is both more cynical and ominous. Introduced as the last place of work of a missing woman (bad sign), the horizon surrounding it is a suffocating white haze as opposed to the pristine blue Mad Men uniformly associates with California. David Morse’s Eliot Bezzerides is swiftly established as hypocrite-in-residence, pompously name-dropping Ginsberg while his daughter, Rachel McAdams’s Antigone, stands in front of a sign that says, “Thank you for supporting the longevity of the Dharma through a monetary donation.” And while his indifference to his other daughter Athena’s career choice of internet pornography is presented as a major piece of evidence for his moral failings, I am far, far more disturbed by his casual reference to “the goddess of love” when Athena is not the fucking goddess of love. Nevertheless, even this naked emperor gets the one line that could literally not be truer for its recipient or any character that has ever appeared on this series: “You should spend less time in a state of resistance making up problems for yourself.”

The other core difference between both interpretations of Esalen and, by extension, California itself is fundamentally theological. Weiner’s take, in keeping with the combination of blind optimism and opportunism that led to the state’s settlement, is utopian. The opening image of Mad Men might be a silhouette of a man falling from a window, but the closing image is a bunch of attractive hippies singing on a hillside in what is both an advertisement and also a piece of cultural history that Weiner has said he finds to be unironically hopeful and beautiful. Pizzolatto, however, favors one of the state’s darker enduring themes, from The Day of the Locust to San Andreas: Apocalypse. Bezzerides’s lecture concludes with a reference to “the final age of man,” and the sign in front of the Institute includes an obscured Latin phrase about “the last day.” While Weiner produced a movement-defining commentary on the Age of Aquarius, it is far too early to speculate what Pizzolatto’s endgame might be — but as the drought continues and we bound heedlessly to ecological catastrophe, ultimately, his may fall into the rare artistic category of prophecy.